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13 Nov 2008 : Column 347WH—continued

That shows how careful and vigilant we must all be when using such sites. I am not surprised that he has claimed that he has been the victim of a spoof profile on the “Friends Reunited” website, for it was indeed damaging. I contend that a sane and rational person aspiring to parliamentary office could not possibly have posted it. It said, for example, that his interests were:

I will not go on to the section about me, but it was even worse. Perhaps most distressing was the box at the bottom, where people are invited to say who their “WeeMee” is. I think that a WeeMee is someone whom you admire, and it looked for all the world like a cartoon character depicting Adolf Hitler. I am pleased to say that that has now been taken off the website, but clearly many people would have found it distressing.

That rather raises the question why anyone would have wanted to pretend to be that person in that way. If those are his friends with whom he is reuniting, I would not like to see his enemies. The case also highlights the need for such websites themselves to be more careful about verifying that people who register with them are who they say they are, as the hon. Member for Maldon and East Chelmsford said. They must also monitor what is posted. As he pointed out, when we visited YouTube, we were concerned to find that it did not readily monitor everything that was posted, but relied on users to report inappropriate material to it. We state in our report our concern that:

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As in the case of YouTube, some of them

The hon. Gentleman said that YouTube may be reviewing its policy. I very much hope that it does so.

Nowhere is this more important than in the area of child pornography and the grooming of children and young people on the net. As part of our inquiry we visited the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre, CEOP, which is run by the extremely formidable Mr. Jim Gamble. To give some indication of the success that CEOP delivers, I point out that it delivers a totally holistic approach, combining policing with the “Safer By Design” initiative and educational initiatives.

CEOP’s latest performance results show that 131 children have been safeguarded from sexual abuse either directly or indirectly as a result of its activity. Of those, 18 have been identified through the examination of child abuse images. As the hon. Gentleman indicated, old-fashioned detective practices have been used successfully to locate the individuals involved. Some 297 arrests have been made as a result of CEOP activity and six organised paedophile rings have been dismantled or disrupted. In addition, since its launch, the “thinkuknow” education programme has reached 1.7 million children and young people between the ages of eight and 16 years, across all parts of the UK.

During our visit to CEOP, we saw a moving and rather distressing video that it had produced about a young boy who had communicated in a chat room with someone whom he thought was his age and had the same interests, and he arranged a meeting. It turned out to be a much older man. The most distressing things occurred when he got there. I will not go into details, because they are really not very pleasant, but we should be under no illusion about what is involved. CEOP does an excellent job, and I hope that the Minister will recognise in her response that the centre’s resources should be increased. I hope that we will get a commitment that the Government will at least consider that.

On a lighter note, social networking sites do have their uses. When we visited Facebook, its staff told us in no uncertain terms about how Mr. Barack Obama, the President-elect of the United States, had used the site relentlessly and very successfully both to raise money and to get out the vote. For my constituency, I have set up a group on Facebook called “Say No to the Bus Lane on the A666 in Darwen”. It already has 577 members, and I urge hon. Members to get on to Facebook, join my group and stop the bus lane.

3.25 pm

Paul Farrelly (Newcastle-under-Lyme) (Lab): It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mr. Bercow, as a fellow parent of three young children. I hope that my remarks will be brief, and that you will put me right if I imply that you are as gadget-unaware and gadget-unfriendly as I am.

I welcome the Minister to her new role. She has been an excellent constituency MP and loyal servant of the Government, and a promotion was overdue. I know that her experience of public service extends to fighting apartheid in South Africa, as indeed does that of her Parliamentary Private Secretary, my hon. Friend—indeed, my great friend—the Member for Sittingbourne and
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Sheppey (Derek Wyatt), who has just limped out of the room. He used to be a—very active—member of the Select Committee before 2005, and he holds probably the most accolades of anyone in this place for his website and internet savvy.

I am pleased to have the opportunity to comment on our report. As ever, the Chairman of the Committee, the hon. Member for Maldon and East Chelmsford (Mr. Whittingdale), expertly and fairly steered our deliberations. He is always fair and gives a great deal of time to all points of view. Rather than repeat his remarks, I hope to reinforce a few of them at the end of my comments.

We should welcome the priority that the Government have already accorded this important subject, given the growth in the importance of the internet. I wish to put on record my appreciation to Dr. Tanya Byron for the review that she conducted, which led to the establishment of the UK Council for Child Internet Safety at the end of September. Its membership shows it to be a large body to say the least, so it was good to see an executive board established recently. It will be chaired jointly by two Cabinet Ministers—the Home Secretary and the Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families. That board contains an impressive list of people with expertise in the field, with no fewer than 22 members including the co-chairs. I hope that it is not so big as to be unwieldy or deadlocked by competing interests. At the end of the day, I hope that we all have the safety of children and vulnerable people on the internet as our common goal. I shall return to the issue of membership towards the end of my remarks.

Notably missing from that board, of course, is Dr. Byron. I am sure that that was her choice, having already given impressive public service. I must say that when she gave evidence to the Committee, she was not only clearly knowledgeable but managed at the same time to be both forthright and diplomatic—a skill that evades many politicians, myself included.

Mr. Whittingdale: I shall point this out before the Minister does, because I am sure that she would. Although it is true that Dr. Byron has stepped aside, having done her work in that area, she has recently joined the digital review panel that has been set up by another new Minister, Lord Carter. Dr. Byron is still active in the area, which I think all of us are pleased about.

Paul Farrelly: I thank the Chairman of the Select Committee. I apologise—I have not come forearmed with a comprehensive list of quangos and recent establishments.

Keith Vaz: Why not?

Paul Farrelly: Life is too short.

We interviewed many people, and Dr. Tanya Byron was certainly one of the most impressive witnesses to have given evidence in my three years on the Committee. She certainly disarmed me when she said, following a particularly hard and robust session of questioning representatives of YouTube and Google, that she found me scary. I have rarely been silenced so effectively and comprehensively. I did not know what to say.

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Like you, Mr. Bercow, I have three young children. They are aged nine and a half, seven and two and a half. When we started our inquiry, like many parents I was rather wary of displaying my ignorance about the internet, social networking and gaming. When it comes to video games and consoles, my wife is tantamount to being the Taliban—they are banned, because of the time that she fears they will take away from reading, learning music and other activities. I am very much one of those parents who, as Dr. Byron put it, do not necessarily

in that respect.

Over the summer, I became aware of certain things following our report. The growth of video-sharing sites such as YouTube spans video and what we traditionally call the internet. I was watching the funny series of excerpts along the lines of the German film “Downfall” on that site. They picture a number of characters, from Alex Ferguson complaining about the impending loss of Ronaldo, to my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister trying to find voters in Glasgow, East. Frankly, it is the really bad language that makes them funny to adults, but I do not necessarily want my children to be exposed to that. That is a real issue in terms of classification for the safety council to take on as it proceeds.

My ignorance was reinforced last night after a discussion about the very innocent children’s Christmas party that my right hon. Friend the Member for Leicester, East (Keith Vaz) is organising again this year. In the course of my children’s strict rations of “Club Penguins”, “Super Mario”, “RuneScape” or “Yu-Gi-Oh!” online, and their sourcing of endless cheat engines for video games such as “Age of Empires”, my laptop screen at home had become clogged with all sorts of icons and programmes that had appeared from the internet. Most pernicious was a purported anti-virus programme called “Virus Recovery 2008”—I hope that the authorities take note of that name—which was paralysing the computer. It is a particularly stubborn piece of what is technically termed “adware”, which tries to sell a programme. It is probably a complete con. It implied that my laptop was stuffed full of trojans, worms, viruses—all fictitious, no doubt.

Until last night I had never deleted a programme in my life, so after lecturing my son I was run through the process by a castigated nine-year-old: toolbar, settings, control panel, Add/Remove—and we could not find it. I then got a lecture that it was probably a ghost programme hiding somewhere else, and so it was. It was duly deleted and my son was out of the dog house, and I certainly learned much more than he did. My awareness of my ignorance was deepened. That experience and this inquiry have made me only too aware of the importance of knowing what our children are doing on the internet, particularly when we are much less computer savvy than they are.

I want to focus on a few main issues that are outstanding with regard to the inquiry report and the Government’s response. As the hon. Member for Maldon and East Chelmsford has stated, we were all shocked at the complacency of Google and YouTube in particular. They pleaded that pre-screening was simply uneconomic and impractical, and that it did not work to pre-screen content that was uploaded, or to screen it in any way for harmful content before responding to complaints by
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users who flagged up that content. We did not find that persuasive because other firms, including MySpace, which has been mentioned, certainly do that.

It was discouraging to find companies such as Google and YouTube hiding behind the e-commerce directive as an excuse for not undertaking that activity. I am sure that it is more a question of profitability than it is of being unviable. We were impressed by many of the companies that gave evidence, but certainly not by the company that recently showed a video, which the hon. Gentleman outlined, that purported to be a gang rape. We also had the experience of the company that showed the young child on Merseyside who was shot dead, and the sites that glorify gang violence.

There is also the issue of that small tail of internet service providers that are failing to co-operate in blocking illegal content from the internet, which the Government and the new council will make it a priority to address. We were certainly impressed by the facility that Microsoft had afforded UK users, of having one clear button to report harmful content and problems. We hope that the council and the Government will urge the industry to come to an agreement to follow that model in the UK, which has been adopted by the local management of Microsoft in this country.

I welcome the Government’s response that the issues relating to the e-commerce directive need to be clarified so that it does not have the unintended consequence of making it more difficult for internet-based companies to remove content or to edit their sites, for fear of being complicit and of being held to account. That would be nonsense.

Like other colleagues, during the investigation I was impressed by the work and dedication of the CEOP Centre, headed by Jim Gamble. The Government have accepted its importance as a body with expertise from the voluntary sector, as well as from the industry and regulators, and that it is making great strides towards getting to those people who would harm our children and vulnerable people. It appeared that some questions about funding and the way in which CEOP can push its agenda compared with other countries were outstanding. Australia was a notable example where television advertising is funded and regularly seen. I hope that questions about CEOP’s funding are addressed urgently.

With respect to video games, which are banned in my household, except when they are streamed over the internet in the hour that my children are allowed, I would like the Government and the council to resolve the issue of dual classification, as it is confusing. We went for classification by the British Board of Film Classification because we felt it was more familiar, although that is perhaps a reflection of our age and of having gone to the Wrexham Rio when we were growing up. It is important that any confusion is resolved as soon as possible.

Mr. Don Foster: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his honesty in saying that the reason for choosing the BBFC was familiarity, but will he acknowledge that, for example, the campaign to make people familiar with guideline daily amounts on food labelling took two years to get the message widely accepted by the public? Were there to be a campaign in respect of the PEGI classification system, within a short space of time that would be equally familiar.

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Paul Farrelly: I take that point and the points made by my hon. Friend the Member for Broxtowe (Dr. Palmer) about the prevalence of downloading games from the internet and not buying them in hard copy, which may move us more towards a PEGI system than the one with which we are more familiar. The point is that we need to have the matter clarified, so that the single classification can be taken up and become more familiar, and so that parents can be more confident in how it works.

I conclude with two questions for the Minister. As the hon. Member for Maldon and East Chelmsford said, we recommended that alongside the new council, as part of the jigsaw, there should be a body to enforce standards, in a self-regulatory way, in the model of the Advertising Standards Authority. The Government did not accept that, and I hope that she will say more about why. I urge the council in particular, as it develops its child internet safety strategy next year, to consider that suggestion, which does not reflect any criticism of the council’s role or its work.

We also recommended that for clarity a single Minister should be responsible for this matter. The Government have not accepted that and the reason they have given—that it is up to the Prime Minister to decide on appointments—is the traditional politician’s way of side-stepping an issue when asked if they would like a particular job. Perhaps the Minister could say a few words about why the Government have not accepted that recommendation, or why a Minister from her Department, either herself or Lord Carter, the impressively titled Minister for Communications, Technology and Broadcasting, does not sit on the executive board of the council.

I reiterate that all on the inquiry felt that the Government deserved plaudits for the serious way in which they have taken this issue, and for setting up the Byron review and pursuing its conclusions with the new UK council. I hope that some of the further issues will be addressed in due course, and I hope that the Minister will make it part of her new role to ensure that there is effective joined-up government that includes the involvement of her Department.

3.39 pm

Mr. John Hayes (South Holland and The Deepings) (Con): I intend to speak very briefly for three reasons: first, because I was not able to be here at the beginning, for which I apologise; secondly, because I know much less about the subject than almost every other Member in the Chamber, judging from what has been said already; and, thirdly, because I have only a few things of import to offer.

However, I speak with the benefit of being the father of two small children, rather like you, Mr. Bercow, and I have just as much concern for their welfare as I know you have for yours. As such, I am intimately and personally involved in and, frankly, worried about, these matters as all parents are concerned about the future of their children.

I want to make three points. First, the technology is highly interactive. The difference between it and other media—I speak as someone who spent his time before coming here in the world of information technology—is that it is interactive. Film, video and the whole games network are merging with other technologies and media,
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and that makes the task of trying to put in place adequate control extremely difficult. Indeed, it is much more difficult than when we were looking largely at printed material or even film and TV alone.

Secondly, the situation is highly dynamic. Video games and their like are, by their nature, rapidly changing. Providers are always anxious to take the next step, to go to the next level and to push the boundaries still further, and that dynamism requires a public policy response which itself is highly flexible and responsive. It is not enough simply to make judgments and then assume their worth. They must be regularly formally reviewed. The self-regulation that came out of the Byron review needs to be examined in some detail to test its effectiveness.

The third thing about these media is that they are pervasive and intrusive, and, for that reason, hard to self-regulate. It is hard to make parental choices that stick, or to know at all times to what children are exposed. When my son goes to visit his friends, I do not know in detail what their parents’ views are on such things. They may be somewhat different from mine. Those are difficult things to make judgments about, because I cannot stop my young son visiting perfectly respectable and decent family friends.

There are some arguments that I hope we will not hear in the winding-up speeches. I do not think that we will hear them from my hon. Friend the Member for Wantage (Mr. Vaizey), who has a distinguished history on this subject. He looks at such matters in considerable detail and takes his responsibility seriously. He is a prince among shadow Ministers, if I might put it that way. Nevertheless, I hope that we will not hear the tired old argument about freedom. Civilised life is characterised not by our capacity to do as we will, which, by the way, we share with the apes, but by our ability to choose to do what we should. That is what civilises us, and trailing the old argument about liberty will not be helpful to the debate.

The second argument that we might hear from the Minister is about information, as though exposure to more and more data is of itself a good thing. Children are now exposed to all kinds of stimuli, influences and information to which previous generations of young people were not. But as T. S. Eliot asked:

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